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Bessent: In second presidential debate, optics matter for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

The stage set prior to the second presidential

The stage set prior to the second presidential debate held at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University on Oct. 16, 2012. Credit: Getty Images

Nearly 60 million people will watch the second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on television, so optics matter. How the candidates look may sway voters as much as what they have to say. That’s too bad.

The nation’s economy is in a rough place right now and the world is more complex than ever.  The candidates’ warring visions of where they’d lead the nation — and the details of their policies for taking it there — are critical and far from crystal clear. But while many voters are steeped in the nuance of government policy, most are not. So gut reaction — can I trust this guy to do what’s best for me? — is important in their fight for votes. That means how they look and handle themselves in the crucible of the town hall forum at Hofstra University matters, maybe more than it should.

It’s been that way since 1960, when Vice President Richard Nixon met a brash challenger, Sen. John F. Kennedy, in the first televised presidential debate.

Most of the television audience thought Kennedy won. Those who tuned in on radio gave the nod to Nixon. Kennedy was tanned and rested and clearly at ease on air. Nixon was pale, sweating, underweight and uptight. Kennedy’s appearance inspired confidence. Nixon’s didn’t. Advantage Kennedy.

In the first Obama-Romney debate on Oct. 3 in Denver, Romney had a big edge on optics. He looked confident, comfortable and up for the game. Obama was seen  looking down and writing notes. He seemed to be hanging his head as Romney took him to task. He looked uncomfortable and unsure of himself.

That wasn’t the only reason Romney was universally hailed the winner. He was also crisp and focused in selling his vision while Obama did a poor job defending his record and laying out where he’d lead. But Romney clearly won the optics battle.

Looks will matter in round two Tuesday night. But with so much at stake for the nation, what the candidates say should carry more weight than how they look while saying it.